Honoring Kenneth J. Northcott (1922–2019)

June 24, 2019
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The University of Chicago Press mourns the loss of translator, scholar, and stage actor Kenneth J. Northcott, who died in Chicago on June 4, age 96. Northcott was professor emeritus of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and the translator of numerous German-language books for the University of Chicago Press. He is especially known for his inspired translations of works by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, all of which remain in print: The Voice Imitator, Walking, Three Novellas, and Histrionics: Three Plays. His other translations for the Press include a volume of essays by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and two books on Goethe by Siegfried Unseld, the late head of the distinguished German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag. “Kenneth was always the first translator we approached when considering a work in German,” recalls editorial director Alan Thomas. “Although he was a medievalist by training and translated several specialized studies for us, Kenneth’s greatest achievement was his brilliant translations of the twentieth-century writer Thomas Bernhard. Kenneth’s linguistic resourcefulness, sly humor, and experience with the theater made him a perfect match for Bernhard.”

Northcott was born on 25 November 1922 in London. His father was a gardener for the City of London’s parks, his mother a bookkeeper. At the age of twelve, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, then served in the British Army’s Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from 1942 to 1945, later in Germany as an interrogator in the Intelligence Corps from 1945 to 1946. After the war, he attended King’s College, University of London, earning his BA in 1950 and his MA in 1952. After teaching positions at the University of Glasgow and University of Sheffield, Northcott arrived at the University of Chicago, first as a visiting assistant professor for the 1958-59 academic year, then permanently in 1961 as associate professor. He was Dean of Students in the Graduate Division of the Humanities from 1966 to1968, resident-master of Pierce Hall from 1969 to 1977, and served three terms as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He was a member of the Press’s faculty board from 1968 to 1972.

Northcott’s early experience in the theater included acting at L. du Garde Peach’s Great Hucklow Theatre in the late 1940s. In Chicago during the 1960s, he worked with the director Robert Sickinger in Hull-House Theatre. In 1965, he appeared in the Esso Repertory Theatre television production of Harold Pinter’s two-person play The Dumb Waiter. Reviewing the production in the 11 March 1965 issue of the New York Times, Paul Gardner wrote that “Arthur Geffen and Kenneth Northcott of the Hull-House Theatre in Chicago admirably conveyed the desperation and ennui of Pinter’s frightened characters.” Northcott subsequently appeared in numerous productions at the Court Theatre under the directorship of Nicholas Rudall, including Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1994), Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1991), and George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (1983) for which he was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for best supporting actor. He directed Sheridan’s The Rivals for the Pegasus Players in 1983. He appears in the TV Movie To Sir, with Love II. Gavin Witt, who as a student appeared with Northcott in Measure for Measure and is now associate director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, recalled Northcott’s “austere stage demeanor,” which gave way backstage to a “twinkling sense of mischief, the erudition always evident but also the utter lack of hierarchy or amour-propre, and a gently paternal sense of inclusion. He led by example, or would articulate gentle reproof with an arch obliqueness that I can only associate with a Wodehouse character.” The Wodehouse comparison is apt, as Northcott’s roles included Jeeves in a 1993 City Lit Theater (Chicago) production of Right Ho, Jeeves! He was a longtime member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Kenneth Northcott is survived by his wife Patricia John Northcott, four children—Victoria, Julian, Michael, and Felicity—six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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